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Brain Work by Michael Guista

The Nature of the Mind

Originally, Michael Guista's Brain Work was to be titled Brain Work: Stories in Search of a Soul. While I don't know the actual reason why the subtitle was dropped, I suspect that someone saw its deceptiveness: The stories themselves aren't looking for their own souls; rather, Guista is trying to uncover the essence of the soul that inhabits us all.

This "soul" is loosely defined. It is soul taken to mean the essence of one's being, the combination of personality, intellect, and memory that make us who we are. When we medicate ourselves into a stupor, as one character does, are we the same person even if critical aspects of our personality -- creativity, mental acuity, kindness -- are altered by medication? What if the change is permanent? Most importantly, are we any different than the chemical processes that occur constantly in our brains?

These types of questions are unavoidable in Brain Work, and are part of the reason why it's such a good book. The other part is because Guista, a graduate of the UC Irvine writing program, is an excellent craftsman.

The first story, "Filling the Spaces Between Us", is simultaneously a psychiatrist's exploration of psychiatric illness and of the death of the soul. It is the most brutal and affecting story in the collection, and also exquisite, in a way only the emotionally horrific can be. Like a folk tale, the power of the story is not in the events, though they are inherently interesting, but in the telling of them. The first time I read the story, I could sense the progression, the events that have to follow. Yet even in only rereading certain targeted scenes I find them compelling for, in a beautifully human voice, it shows error and melancholy and regret.

Guista doesn't only question the dogma of the soul, however; he also questions psychiatry. In "The Year of Release", a college professor teaches a student prone to seizures. "When a seizure hits a person," the student explains, "Well, when one hits me, the world just changes. It's as though I can smell my thoughts. I'm watching myself, and my body's going its own way, despite me." For the student, the seizures are evidence of a spiritual being, a soul, and a means of seeing the world outside of his corporeal existence. When they are medicated away, the professor comes to understand, something irreplaceable is lost.

Other highlights include "The Whole World's Guilt", about the driver in a car accident and his attempt to come to terms with himself, and "California", about a yard sale occurring as a couple separates. "California" is initially confusing, but its subtlety in describing the world through the eyes of a man suffering a migraine, and the lack of cohesion that the pain effects, is impressive.

Brain Work's unifying theme -- its "gimmick", if you will -- is that the all the stories revolve around the psychologically abnormal and the psychologically ill. Parkinson's, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Tourette's all make appearances, and at times the stories seem pressed into the theme. If the book has a weakness, this is it.

That said, let me offer this as well: There are no bad stories in Brain Worki and quite a few that are excellent. If Guista does not answer the grand questions that his stories put forth, then it is because no one can. Our understanding of the working of the brain is still lacking; so too is our understanding of the soul.

Brain Work by Michael Guista
Mariner Books
July 11, 2005
Trade Paperback:/$12
ISBN 0-618-54672-3
208 pgs.